Dale Frank

Social realism
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney
1996

Dale Frank's Social Realism was, in many respects, excessive. The wall-to-wall installation outstripped even Frank's usual retinal barrage. His large goopy canvasses, themselves unable to contain their copious grotesque viscosity, were in abundance, as too were his characteristically loud amorphous paintings. The black plastic, protecting every inch of the walls and floor, completed the orgiastic feeling of the exhibition as a whole, a feeling already evidenced in its parts.

On the plastic floor were seemingly banal objects which, conversely, were more likely to have been presented with their exotic properties in mind, in anticipation of a bourgeois audience. Fondue Periferique, a "Complete Lazy Susan Fondue Set" in its 1970's box on a plinth, was a daggy fragment of temporal otherness, while the marijuana plant in Pot. And I Need A Haircut offered a bit of exotic-substance naughtiness.

I  <3 Billy Mummy, a heavy-duty piece of S & M gear suspended above a glass-top coffee table, was a piece of sexual exoticism, as was the homoerotic That Fucking Painting, the resulting imprinted canvas from two paint-covered men having sex. If there was any real empathy with bondage or homosexuality here, it was certainly not the work's fundamental purpose. For Frank, it would seem that the value of this presentation lay in the voyeuristic exotic value it holds for the normalised centre.

These objects were an extrapolation of elements of Frank's paintings, distilled and made (more) 3D. The dripping viscose paintings suggest the visceral, particularly that expelled anally. For Frank's objects, the bodily abject is attenuated to perceived breaches of the social body: sex, drugs and bad taste. Frank employs these codes of transgression in an epic, seductive and abundant way. For his Social Realism as a whole, the mode and means of transgression were especially of a Bataillean model: excessive, expendable, expulsive. This much is apparent, but critically, what can be made of it?

If it was once arguable that Dale Frank only allowed the critic "an overwhelming metacritical silence", this is increasingly less the case.1 Sure enough, his vast and ever-expanding body of work has consistently and obstinately sought to problematise and evade critical resolution. However, his resistance to critical and institutional prescriptions has emerged as its consistent and dominant metacritical thread. The critical discourse which surrounds it also adds weight to this.

The tensions of artist-critic dialogue have cast Frank in the role of Australian contemporary art's bad boy, which he seems happily prepared to play. However, what can be said of the role of the institutions which seeming self-flagellate by presenting Frank's work?

If, then, it is Dale Frank's metacritical position to oppose the authority of the gallery as a rarefied intellectual and bourgeois space, it can likewise be argued that such spaces are easily able to absorb and accommodate the dissent, not merely neutralising it, but adding to their prestige in so doing.2 Indeed, "the supreme ruse of power is to allow itself to be contested ritually in order to consolidate itself more effectively".3 If this position is to be regarded at the mainstay of Frank's metacritique, it must rely on a continued belief in the authority of the gallery space. However, is the authority of the gallery space such that it can still be said to have the upper-hand in relation to the artist?

That this is evidenced in even the most institutionalised of gallery spaces is indeed doubtful. In so far as the galleries' doors are open to such hecklers, it is important to remember that the hecklers are on the payroll. Both artist and gallery play their parts well, cut the takings and, in addition, reap the kudos of playing principal roles in the spectacle. The theatrics of the artist-gallery dual are not merely a part of the spectacle, but are vital in creating the space in which it can be played out. Even though the hegemony of the white cube gallery space is gone, such spaces feign authority to allow the artist the enjoyment of resisting it. The gallery creates the merely nominal 'no', without which the 'yes' has no real meaning.

If what is said here is simply that Frank's work presents the highly seductive stylistics of a specious transgression, this is not necessarily to diminish its value. Rather, it is to redirect it, to short-circuit it to the main source of its power: the spectacle of the performance of the means of transgression. It is the excess of Frank's work that is the core of this spectacle, and this goes beyond the materiality of his work. Paralleling this aspect, the economics of excess are literally demonstrated in the hyper-inflated prices of the works. An example here is Fuck Off Back To Flag Land, which is simply a dog lead, a commonplace object on sale at $2,500. It is not to be ignorant of the history of the ready-made to say nevertheless that this is absurdly expensive for such an object. Again, this is not to question the art-value of Frank's work, or to say merely that it is an entirely mercenary venture. Rather, and more importantly, this commercial dimension adds to the thrill of Frank's immoderation.

Frank throws a challenge at the buyers of such work (which judging from the prices, are almost exclusively institutions). To pick up the challenge and to buy the work is to demonstrate the buyer's intellectual and economic superiority: not only is the buyer able to understand that he or she is being mocked, but also to accommodate and absorb the mockery and, darn-it, pay for the pleasure. Crowds are drawn to watch such fine copper being thrown into the sea, and thus even Frank's price tags serve to augment his spectacle.

What is of greater value to an artist like Dale Frank: the means of transgression, or the end? Certainly, the initial will to transgress authority necessitates the invention of the means with which to transgress. If the means of transgression are successful, that is, if the authority is successfully transgressed or, in the case of the authority of the gallery space, is found to be defunct, then there is no longer any necessity for the existence of the means.

Thus for Frank, the reputed aim of transgressing gallery authority is merely an alibi for indulgence. This is why if his work has been described as Baroque,4 it is not so much for reasons of form, but rather for the wilful decadent excess that it is eager to demonstrate. Ultimately, there is no fundamental utility in Frank's work, no genuinely subversive end, other than the pleasure of performing the means of transgression. And this is where its value lies.

Dale Frank, Social Realism, 1996. Installation view. Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. 

notes: 

1. Lumby, C., "Introduction" Dale Frank: Adieu , 1990, Deutscher Brunswick St., Melbourne, Australia, p.3.

2. Gibson, J., "Dale Frank", Art + Text, No. 49, September 1994, Sydney, Australia, p.73.

3. Balandier, G., Political Anthropology, 1970, Alien Lane, London, England.

4. Groot, P., "Foreword", Dale Frank, 1992, Craftsman House, Roseville , Australia.